When Disaster Strikes: The 2014-15 Lakers Survival Guide

Jordan Hill
Jordan Hill
Photo by Jeff Cowan

“When Disaster Strikes, take a look and sit on the sidelines and bear witness.” – Busta Rhymes

Reporter: What's the best thing this team does right now?
Kobe: "Defend."

Assemble your rations. Turn your basement into a fortified shelter sturdy enough to withstand Stephen Curry fire-bombings and Y2K panic. You’ll need some old Lakers championship DVDs, a Dwight Howard voodoo doll, and gallons of that off-brand sports drink that Kobe insists on shilling. While you’re at it, hang this poster on your wall.

It’s going to be a long season—one of those years where you almost wish there was a lockout. After a half-century of domination only matched by the Yankees, the Lakers are in serious eclipse. When we last left the Purple and Gold, they limped to a 27-55 finish—the squad’s first time missing the playoffs in a decade, their worst record since fleeing Minneapolis.

In 82 games, the tenor of Lakers fandom went from smug gloating to a love that dare not speak its name. These are not words that I want to write. I have spent the entirety of my life believing in Lakers exceptionalism. Even during Smush Parker purgatory, there was always the part-the-Red Sea providence that Kobe Bryant could summon on any given night. But those days are long gone. By the end of the season, local heathens could be worshipping golden calf statues of Ballmer

For the second straight summer, the Lakers swung out on every single free agent. Carmelo Anthony opted to stay in New York to chair Taylor Swift’s hospitality committee.  LeBron returned to Cleveland because he conveniently remembered that he’s a boy who originally ran and cried in Northeast Ohio at the same time that the Cavaliers acquired a No. 1 pick to flip for Timberwolves star, Kevin Love. If you recall, Love tantalized Lakers fans as a potential free agent coup next summer. It was a lock, everyone said. Love needed to be in L.A.: he went to UCLA, he went Porsche Shopping here, his uncle is a Beach Boy.

But the lure of L.A. is less strong than ever before. Jerry Buss resides in that shimmering Marina Del Rey harem in the sky. Hollywood doesn’t make movies like Shazam anymore and besides, Shaq is part-owner of the Sacramento Kings. Save for Chicago, the marquee franchises are all in the dregs. Today’s powerhouses are Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Cleveland—three cities that most Angelenos don’t believe had electric power until several years ago.

There will be blame. There will be acrimony. There will be injuries. Steve Nash is out for the whole reason after X-Rays revealed that his bones had transmogrified into terra cotta. There will also be supremely entertaining controversies. After all, some things never change. This is the Lakers and drama, finger pointing, and the Imperial March theme float in our collective unconscious. 

For those holed up in their bunkers, here’s a survival guide to the 2014-15 Lakers. Put your hands where your eyes can see and then close them and make a wish.

Front Court:

C – Jordan Hill
2013 Averages 9.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 0.9 Blocks
For the Lakers to be halfway decent, they’ll need the dreadlocked and tattooed Arizona alumni to play like the Waka Flocka of the Flockavelli era, not the late period trap relic throwing birthday cake with Steve Aoki.

Despite being at constant odds with ex-coach Mike D’Antoni, Hill racked up a staggeringly effective PER (player efficiency rating) of nearly 20. Projected over 36 minutes, it could theoretically mean that he could average 15 points, 10 rebounds and shoot 60 percent. Early signs are promising. The ferocious rebounder has apparently quit drinking and gotten into much better shape, thanks to Byron Scott’s high-school JV style suicide routine.

For Hill to be truly effective and live up to the value of his $9 million-a-year contract, he’ll have to step out and consistently hit 15 footers to stretch out opposing defenses. Otherwise, Kobe may be forced to go off an unhinged Twitter rant on him a la Gucci Mane.

F Carlos Boozer
2013 Averages 13.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.3 APG
After the Bulls amnestied Boozer, the Lakers acquired the rapidly declining former All-Star. They got Pau Gasol, the Fr. Junipero Serra of Spanish basketball and we get the Alaska native who spent the pre-season taunting opponents, after hitting And-1s with Lakers down 20.

The Lakers need Boozer to recapture his former glory, discover a defensive tenacity that he never knew, and entertains the locker room with stories of the time that Prince rented out his mansion, installed purple running rivers and converted the master bedroom into a salon.

F Wes Johnson
2013 Averages 9.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.6 APG
In the best of all possible worlds, the Lakers would have a defensive stopper and a 3-point sharpshooter capable of guarding the other team’s best athlete. Instead, we have Wes Johnson, a good-natured but unfocused raw leaper who has yet to harness the potential that originally made him a lottery pick. He’s 27 years old, so it’s now or never. Apparently, Kobe really likes him and worked out with him this summer, so it’s entirely conceivable that he could gain greater spring and a more accurate jump shot via rare supplements of Japanese mako shark, Panda Kidney, mamba snake venom, and distilled fear.

Kobe Bryant
2013 Averages
13.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 6.3 APG
Since the calendar turned the page to October, Kobe Bean has binged on a steady diet of Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th films, harboring empathy for the revenge obsessions of Jason and Freddy Krueger. For a man with a Nixonian enemies list, the preseason has provided ample motivation to prove that he’s impervious to age, Achilles rips, and click-bait ranked lists.

ESPN named him the 40th best player in the league. Then its magazine ran an anonymously sourced feature that claimed that No. 24 was secretly responsible for the Lakers downfall. His obese contract clogged too much cap room. His peers didn’t want to come to the Lakers, lest they have deal with an aging scorer whose chill factor resembled Vladimir Putin. To which, Jeannie Buss responded by announcing an institutional search to find the culprits and force them to watch Mark Madsen dancing Vines until they slowly went insane. Even Flea weighed in.

Reality is more complicated. Yes, Kobe has done no favors by skipping free agent meetings, being totally weird about texting, and alienating every player who doesn’t get slightly excited by the sight of blood. But he is still one of the greatest of all-time and likely to far exceed what you’d expect from a guy who has racked up more minutes than all but six guards to play the game.

Turn the page for more on Kobe, and the rest of the squad
 

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant
Photo by Jeff Cowan

But all the German medical miracles in the world can’t turn back time. Kobe took more shots-per-game than anyone in the pre-season and shot just under 40 percent. Even during his dazzling 4th quarter run in a pre-season game against Phoenix, he took the least efficient shots imaginable—twisting heavily guarded 20 footers.

This is a different NBA. Contrary to Byron Scott’s statement, championship teams do hit 3s. Lots of them. With zone defense allowed, ball movement is forever at a premium. Isolation basketball and long two-pointers are increasingly out of vogue. The Spurs play basketball like the world’s greatest and most sober Socialist jazz quintet. For the Lakers to compete, Kobe needs to evolve one final time, subjugating his ego and self-mythology to become an offensive facilitator and (very) patient leader. He needs to recognize when he can still be Kobe and when he can’t.

Jeremy Lin
2013 Averages 12.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 4.1 APG
There’s a sizable chance that Jeremy Lin might be the second best player on the Lakers, which is great if you still have Linsanity souvenirs in storage, but dubious if you’re a Lakers fan. Lin is far from the savior, but he does at least offer a point guard capable of penetrating and finishing at the hoop—a luxury that the Lakers haven’t had since Ramon Sessions.

Even though Lin got beat out by Patrick Beverley last season, he’s a competent NBA point guard who conveniently netted the Lakers a desperately-needed first round pick from Houston merely for taking on his contract. The primary concern is that Lin will fall victim to the Lakers Point Guard Curse (“The Nick Van Hexel”) and wind up on the sidelines learning how to tie a Windsor knot from Steve Nash.

Bench

Front Court

Nick “Swaggy P” Young –SF/SG
From a purely basketball perspective, it didn’t make any sense to give a four-year $21.5 million deal to a 29-year old swingman who posted a career year in Mike D’ Antoni’s steroidal but free-spirited offense. But there’s a reason why he was our favorite Laker last year

Nick Young
Nick Young
Photo by Jeff Cowan

He’s ebullient, quotable, dates a rapper, and shows up to the locker room every day in an increasingly Kanye-ish outfit. When it was reported that an injured thumb would have him out until December, it ensured a most solemn Yom Kippur for all.

Julius Randle – PF
Absurd hopes accompany the Lakers first Lottery pick since Andrew Bynum, but early returns on the lefty from Kentucky are good. He’s elicited comparisons to Zach Randolph and Lamar Odom, and has the sort of confidence and coast-to-coast handles that will quickly endear him to fans. With the playoffs unlikely, the development of Randle has to be one the Lakers most crucial priorities. He needs to be starting and playing 35 minutes a game by mid-season.

Ed Davis –PF/C
Acquired from Memphis, Ed Davis was a savvy off-season pick-up by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. He’s almost certainly the Lakers best post defender and will hopefully shore up what promises to be a lasciviously unprotected rim. He also has the blandest name in the league since Joe Smith.

Ryan Kelly – SF/PF
Last year’s biggest rookie surprise spent most of the pre-season nursing an ailing hamstring. When he finally returned, he injured his other hamstring that same day. If he ever enrolls in a yoga class, Kelly could give the Lakers a solid 15 minutes a game and potentially offer the Lakers the stretch 4 that Byron Scott doesn’t believe in.

Xavier Henry – SG/SF
When he wasn’t injured last year, Henry lived up to the high hopes that people had for him when he left Kansas. Unfortunately, he missed half the year and spent almost the entire pre-season on the injured reserve. The Nick Van Hexel is very real.

Robert Sacre – Center
Does this guy know how to wave a towel or what?

Backcourt

Ronnie Price – PG
The team's only backup point guard at the moment. To paraphrase Major League: who the fuck is this guy?

Wayne Ellington – SG
Barring injury, it’s unlikely that he’ll see major minutes. On the plus side, if he plays well, it can be known as an Ellington Jazz Party.

Coach
Byron Scott

It’s difficult to overstate how much Lakers fans despised Scott's predecessor, Mike D’ Antoni. They resented him for not being Phil Jackson; they resented him for presiding over the team’s rapid deterioration; they resented him for his mustache. By the end of the season, the kindest thing that they could say was that he looked like the man on the Pringles box.

D’ Antoni was a straw man for everything that went wrong since the Chris Paul trade veto. If you took a poll, most fans would tell you that it was D’ Antoni himself who caused Kobe’s Achilles to turn to beef jerky. But even though he exceeded expectations before a catastrophic string of injuries torpedoed the season, D’ Antoni had to go. The well was poisoned. So the Lakers amicably parted ways and even gave him a lifetime supply of mustache wax as a lagniappe.

In comes Byron Scott, a veteran nostalgia machine from when the Lakers were invulnerable. That’s him carrying Jack Nicholson on the poster currently hanging in your basement fortress. He’s trying to install a scrappy defensive-minded grittiness in the squad, which is a valiant if not futile effort. Even if the Lakers don’t exactly have the personnel to run a perimeter-heavy offense, they’re going to have to develop strategies to cope with being shot out of every game. If Scott, can do that he’ll get more patience from the rarely pacified fan base.

At worst, he’s a solid and dependable tie to a proud legacy, whose discipline and singular focus should get decent performances out of what he has. The broader question is: what exactly does he have?

Prediction: The Lakers will go 30-52
There are only two realistically positive outcomes for the Lakers this season. The first is that Kobe returns to his 2012 self, Randle improves at an alarming rate, they pick up someone decent with the Nash exception, and the team guts out ugly-but-oddly-charming victories. They finish .500 or a few games under and a foundation is established that can tilt them back towards stability.

The other alternative is they absolutely tank and finish near the bottom of the West. They luck out and get a Top 5 Lottery pick, which means they don’t lose it to Phoenix. Combined with their other selection in the teens, the Lakers draft two touted prospects and set themselves up handsomely for the 2015 and 2016 free agency classes.

The Worst Case Scenario? Let’s jump off that bridge when we come to it.


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